Creating a cheap, safe material for electric-vehicle batteries.
Advanced nanostructures invented by Yu-Guo Guo could lead to electric-car batteries that deliver more power at 10 percent less cost. That’s significant because battery packs account for a great deal of the cost of electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf. A car with a big battery pack is too expensive for most people, but models that keep costs down with a smaller battery pack can’t go very far on a charge.
For Guo, a professor of chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the crucial innovation was a better way to use lithium iron phosphate. Automakers like the material because its stable chemistry makes it safe for use in large electric-vehicle battery packs. But ordinarily, it is not conductive enough to be useful. Some manufacturers have tried milling the phosphate into an extremely fine powder that’s more conductive but difficult to work with. Guo’s solution was to incorporate phosphate nanoparticles into larger particles made of porous carbon. These particles retain the high conductivity of the powder, but they are easier to pack closely and less likely to become airborne.
Late last year Guo founded a company, Wuhe, that will produce enough material for 30 million lithium-ion battery cells this year–enough for roughly 5,000 car battery packs. The cells are currently being sold for use in electric bicycles and being tested for use in electric cars.
Drilling with lasers.
Vast quantities of oil and natural gas are trapped under rock that’s too hard to drill though economically with existing technology. Joel Moxley’s startup, Foro Energy, wants to use high-powered lasers to carve through rock that stymies conventional drill bits, making these resources cheaper to extract.
Lasers powerful enough to blast through rock are already available, and recent advances have made them more transportable. But they are too big and fragile to be sent down the borehole, and conventional fiber optics can’t transport high-energy laser beams over long distances. That was the problem Moxley aimed to solve when he founded Foro, in 2009. As CEO, he gathered some of the world’s best experts on high-powered lasers, established joint development partnerships with major energy companies, and raised over $20 million in venture capital and government grants. The result: Foro has designed a system that can direct laser beams along more than 3,500 meters of fiber-optic cable while retaining enough power to cut through hard rock two to four times as fast as conventional bits, lowering drilling costs by two-thirds. The technology caught the attention of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, which gave Foro one of the largest awards it has granted. “Laser-based drilling was considered crazy even five years ago,” says David Danielson, a program manager at ARPA-E. Now, Moxley says, commercial drilling could begin in two to three years.
Cheap nanotubes for ultracapacitors.
Hybrids make up less than 3 percent of passenger-vehicle sales, largely because they cost so much. Expensive batteries account for much of the premium price, but Riccardo Signorelli is developing cheap ultracapacitors that could replace them. Hybrids based on his technology could be inexpensive enough to start paying for themselves in fuel savings after one to two years.
Ultracapacitors, which store actual electrical charges rather than storing energy chemically, are far more durable than batteries and work well in cold weather. But conventional ultracapacitor cells store only a relatively small amount of energy, so it would be expensive to use them in the quantities required to power a car. Signorelli has developed new ultracapacitor materials that use arrays of carbon nanotubes to form electrodes with a large surface area, tripling the amount of energy that each cell can store. In 2008 he founded a company called FastCAP to commercialize the technology (he is currently CEO), and by now he’s raised $7.6 million. The company has focused on bringing down the high cost of nanotubes through cheap manufacturing techniques based on those used in the solar-cell industry. All told, the ultracapacitors should be able to store energy at less than half the cost per watt-hour of current technology. Signorelli expects that hybrids with his ultracapacitors will start appearing within five years.